Many people think that the need to separate state and religion is obvious, and that Israel has no right to demand that the whole country is run according to the Jewish religion. But is it really true that it is possible to separate the state from the dominant worldview? Can you imagine always having to work and send the kids to school on Christmas day? Or being obliged to order your life around another religion’s festivals? Transport stops when you don’t want it to, the shops close when it’s not your holiday, but life carries on as normal at Christmas and Easter? Can you imagine not being free to have your children christened or dedicated in a church, or being able to officially get married in a church? These are things that everyone takes for granted in “Christian” countries, whether the citizens are really Christians or not. But the truth is that for many centuries, Jewish people have had to live under circumstances that conflict with the Jewish way of life.
A place where Jewish people can finally feel at home
Society does not stop for them on Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement. Their holidays like Passover, Sukkot, and Rosh haShana come and go unnoticed, they are often expected to go to work and to school anyway. Some countries are becoming increasingly hostile towards circumcision, calling it barbaric, and even talking of outlawing the practice. If we can imagine ourselves having to live under another religion’s rules, customs and holidays, we can get a glimpse of what the Jewish diaspora has endured for two millenia.
So it is important that just as many countries follow a Christian pattern, and others a Muslim way of life, and so on, that the Jewish people can finally have a place where they can express and follow their own traditions freely – and without fear.
Today in Israel, the Shabbat brings the country to a virtual standstill, and the holidays are celebrated across the nation. Jewish customs are revered and honoured, rather than tolerated or prohibited. All public institutions and hotels are obliged to meet Jewish kosher dietary requirements, and people can finally feel safe to be Jewish, and at home.
Just as most who celebrate Christmas across the globe don’t really know Jesus at all, so in Israel – most of the population are secular, atheist, agnostic, perhaps interested in new age spirituality, but they still love to celebrate the Jewish holidays with their loved ones. It is part of the Jewish identity, and a beautiful miracle that now there is a country based on the rhythm and patterns of the Jewish calendar.
Mindfulness of Israel’s minorities
As wonderful as this all is, many people feel that a Jewish state is not good because it ties religion together with politics and results in discrimination against the non-Jewish citizens of Israel. One in five Israelis are Arabs, either Muslim or Christian by background, and they of course have different holidays and ways of life. In a democratic situation, their voice is drowned out by the Jewish majority, and they just have to live under a Jewish system whether they like it or not. This is particularly irksome for those who feel that this system is new and has been forced upon them. But even though this may be true, God has brought events together to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and their insistence on keeping the state Jewish is reasonable, given that there are many Muslim and Christian-run countries, but no other place in the world that a Jewish person can go and practice his faith as a normal and nationally-accepted way of life. The Muslim, the Christian, the Druze, the Bahai, and citizens of all other religions are given freedom to worship as they wish in Israel, but the calendar and institutions are predominantly Jewish.
Having said that, there are Arab Israelis involved in every level of the political and democratic system, with Arab members of Parliament, and Arab judges in the supreme court, with power to impose sentences on Jewish citizens – in fact, an Arab judge recently sent a previous Jewish prime minister to jail for a serious crime. Arab Israelis have positions in the education system, in city municipalities, hospitals, and in every part of civil life. It is untrue that Israel is an “apartheid” state, with one law for Jews and another for Arabs. In fact, it is often said that Israeli Arabs enjoy a better quality of life (more freedom, access to good education, health, and equal opportunities) than those in surrounding Muslim countries. Arab Israelis can attend schools in Arabic, gain qualifications in Israel’s universities, are exempt from national service, and can freely worship at their local mosque – all in a Jewish state. The contrast between the freedoms for minorities in Israel compared with those of other faiths living in Muslim countries is stark.
What if it wasn’t?
In today’s increasingly anti-Semitic environment, if Israel ever lost its Jewish majority, the implications for Jews are very serious. Part of the reason that the State of Israel makes tough decisions to limit the number of those of other religions within its borders is to ensure that the majority remains Jewish, so that the Jewish way of life can maintained at a state level. The rights of Christians, Muslims, Druze, and the Bahai are enshrined in Israeli law, but what would life look like for Jewish people in the Middle East, if Israel ceased to be Jewish?